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"I think you have to do it in a cautious, gradual way." -- Alan Greenspan, on the right way to introduce private social security accounts, which he supports

New legislation that goes into effect in November will give Europe's drug agency expanded powers -- in some areas, exceeding those of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Under the new law, the European Medicines Agency can demand more studies from drugmakers if concerns about a product's safety or effectiveness emerge after it's on the market. Companies that don't comply risk fines of up to 10% of their annual revenue. "This is an important new power the FDA does not possess," says Linda Horton, a former FDA official and now a partner at the Brussels law firm Hogan & Hartson. The agency will also have the power to yank a medicine from the market not only if it proves harmful but also if clinical evidence indicates the drug is less effective than previously thought.

One question that still lingers is whether the European agency will exercise its new powers to take on Big Pharma. The agency gets 70% of its $144 million budget from fees paid by the pharmaceutical companies for approval applications. Industry fees provide only 44% of the $590 million the FDA spends on its two centers that review drugs.

U.S. businesses are beginning to kick the options habit. Companies have sobered up to new rules, which take effect in June, requiring that they treat stock options as an expense. The number of new grants at America's 200 largest companies declined for the third straight year in 2003, with nearly two out of three companies cutting back. Compensation experts say that trend continued through 2004 and will accelerate in 2005.

Companies are replacing options in various ways. Several, such as Progress Energy (PGN), are replacing some or all of their options with fewer shares of restricted stock. Others are simply reducing option grants without offering a replacement. That's the case at Dell (DELL), where employees got 51 million options in 2004, down from 126 million two years earlier.

Reining in options may help curb out-of-control executive pay, as companies axe "mega-grants" worth more than $10 million and "evergreen" provisions that replace options as they are exercised. Consultancy Pearl Meyer & Partners says 92 of the 200 largest companies gave mega-grants in 2004, down from 130 in 2002. Five companies got rid of evergreen provisions in 2004, leaving just 22 with them.

Call it the perk that keeps on giving. Amalgamated Bank, which owns 89,000 shares of Tyson Foods (TSN), alleges in a lawsuit filed on Feb. 16 that Tyson has contracts with four members of the Tyson family "and their cronies" that guarantee them consulting fees after they retire -- and even after they die.

One former director, Robert Peterson, was entitled to $400,000 a year plus other perks -- payments that went to his estate after he died in May, 2004, according to the suit. Don Tyson, the son of the company's founder, gets $800,000 a year. That's for up to 20 hours of work per month, even though he never earned more than $600,000 a year as chairman and CEO. When he dies, the suit says, the payments will go to his survivors. "It is difficult to conceive what consulting services a deceased individual might provide to Tyson," deadpans the suit. Don Tyson's consulting deal runs through 2011. The suit didn't specify the length of Peterson's deal. The company declined comment, saying it had not been served with the suit. Don Tyson was unavail-able for comment.

Amalgamated also alleges that Tyson Foods has done more than $51 million in business with Tyson family members and directors from 2001 to 2003, including leases for farms, aircraft, and warehouses. At the same time, it says, the board awarded options to executives and directors a few days before favorable announcements that would have pushed up the options' exercise price -- in effect saving them $5 million. Fortuitous timing? That's for a court to decide.

Can you hear the corks popping? By 2008 the U.S. will be, for the first time, the world's leading wine-drinking nation, says British researcher IWSR/GDR. Americans' growing taste for vino will push consumption up 29%, to 730 million gallons a year, and sales up 44%, to $24.2 billion, besting the current top three wine-drinking countries: France, Italy, and Germany. While U.S. producers have cause for celebration, since they supply three-quarters of domestic consumption, this year's big gainer is Australia. Brands from Down Under drove 64% of U.S. import growth in 2004, accounting for a third of import sales, up from a quarter in '03. France and Italy, meanwhile, spent '04 in the cellar, with 7% sales declines.

Ben Mangan's plan to combat poverty starts with savings. The key is an investment vehicle called the individual development account (IDA), open only to those making less than twice the federal poverty level, or $37,000 for a family of four. Like 401(k)s, IDAs offer contribution matches, which come from donations and local and federal governments. Matchers get tax breaks, since contributions are considered charity.

The ex-consultant, who grew up in public housing, in 1999 co-founded San Francisco nonprofit Earned Assets Resource Network (EARN) -- now the largest manager of IDAs, with 600. It offers a 2-for-1 match up to $2,000 so earners can save $6,000. IDAs -- which can be used only for education, housing, or business -- are scarce, but Mangan, 34, hopes to "[take] our ideas across the nation."

On Feb. 9, EARN held a conference on policies that might promote IDAs in California. With good bipartisan feedback, Mangan's next stop is Washington.

It has been a tough month for SpongeBob SquarePants. He has been accused by a conservative group, Focus on the Family, of promoting a "gay agenda" and by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for contributing to child obesity by hawking Kellogg's (K) Pop-Tarts, Kraft (KFT) Macaroni & Cheese, Oscar Mayer Lunchables, and Burger King. Don't look for SpongeBob to stop holding hands with his friend Patrick, but he is working on shaping up a fitness image, starting with nutrition and fitness pitches on Kraft mac and cheese and Nabisco Fruit Snacks.

It's part of SpongeBob owner Nickelodeon's effort to get on the right side of the obesity debate. Thus, it has persuaded Kraft to add "Nicktritional" labels. For more than a year the No. 1 kids cable network has been adding TV and Web content featuring SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer, and Blue from Blues Clues to push physical activity and better eating. Nick spokesman David Bittler says the company has persuaded some advertisers that license its characters to plan switches to more healthful ingredients.

But weaning SpongeBob's $1 billion-plus licensing empire off its junk-food diet is "hard to do," says Bittler. Many deals will take years to unwind, and some pacts with makers of healthful products are precluded for competitive reasons. As contracts expire, will Spongey stop pitching foods crammed with sugar, fat, artificial cheese, high fructose corn syrup, and the like? "It's all very much under review," says Bittler. Stay tuned.

Vodafone ((VOD)) is hoping that a gizmo-packed cell phone can lift its ailing Japanese arm. The $200 handset, built by Sharp, has a special motion sensor developed jointly by the British carrier and Japan's Aichi Steel.

The sensor lets users control many of the phone's functions -- such as navigating menus or playing games -- essentially by waving the phone in the air. Users can play a Taito golf game by swinging the phone as if teeing off onto a fairway or jiggle the handset to hear maracas or tambourine sounds.

Vodafone Japan -- whose market share has been falling -- needs a few birdies. On Feb. 7 its president of just two months, Shiro Tsuda, said he would step aside in April. But the new handsets use older, 2G technology, unlike higher-margin, 3G mobiles. And analysts think the appeal may be limited to young people or gadget nerds.


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